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A Walk on the Thai Side

An elephant assists workers during the harvest
© Siam Winery | An elephant assists workers during the harvest
Two crops a year, cobras in the vineyards. Who'd be a winemaker in Thailand?

Thailand is best known for its spicy cuisine, temples, white sand beaches and ladyboys – although the latter don't feature high on the Thai Tourist Board's list of national attractions. 

Thailand is also known for its full-moon parties – an activity that involves up to 30,000 young Brits and Australians getting intoxicated on a beach on the island of Koh Phangan. 

What Thailand is not known for is wine. Visitors are more likely to encounter cheap beer and Mekong – a locally made golden spirit produced from sugar cane and rice and infused with herbs and spices.

It's true that with a tropical climate featuring monsoons, high humidity and searing temperatures, Thailand is better suited to growing sugar cane than vines. Most world wine regions sit at between 30 and 50 degrees of latitude; Bangkok is located at 13 degrees north. From the outset, nature is not on the side of winemakers.

But that hasn't stopped the country's largest wine producer, Siam Wines, from giving it a crack. Its Hua Hin Hills vineyard is a 27-mile (43-km) drive from Hua Hin, a fishing village that has played host to holidaymakers from Bangkok – and the Thai royal family – since the southern railway first linked the two in the early 1920's.

In fact, grapevines were first brought to the Hua Hin Hills via a research project ordered by the Thai king. In the 1980's, the Royal Research Station in nearby Huay Sai planted an experimental vineyard, which included a swathe of shiraz vines. In 2004, Siam Wines planted its own vineyard with shiraz, but with muscat, chenin blanc and even colombard. Colombard is not usually highly regarded but it makes palatable wine in Thailand.

The problem for Thai grape growers is that the country is hot and humid – and when it rains, it doesn't just drizzle, it pours, soaking everything. Because of these conditions, vines grow fast, which means that unlike the rest of the wine world Thai vineyards are able to produce two grape harvests a year.

L-R: Winemaker Kathrin Puff; picking grapes during the harvest at Monsoon Valley
© Siam Winery | L-R: Winemaker Kathrin Puff; picking grapes during the harvest at Monsoon Valley

Siam-owned brand Monsoon Valley has a German winemaker, Kathrin Puff. She had never been to Asia before she accepted the position in 2007 and admits that the heat was "definitely the biggest shock" when she first arrived.

Even though the vines go through two growing cycles a year, Puff does not take two crops of grapes off them; to do so would risk the vines becoming exhausted.

There's also the small matter of the seasons – all two of them. It's dry and hot from October to April, then for the next six months the skies open, almost without fail, every day between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.

“It's impossible to produce high-quality grapes during the rainy season,” says Puff. "It's always grey, cloudy and humid and the grapes would just rot. The harvest takes place in March, but as soon as picking is under way, there's another team scurrying around in the vineyard pruning or trimming shoots in a constant race to keep up with the vines' growth."

An additional problem is that there's no way to avoid working in the heat of the day. The vineyards are home to cobras and pythons, and it's impossible to spot them at night. 

And the challenges don't end there. Sunlight is what makes vines photosynthesize. It is also important to have light to produce fertile buds for the next crop. However, with Thailand being so close to the Equator, there are only 12 hours of sunlight a day, year round.

Faced with a host of natural obstacles, there are ongoing experiments to find out which grapes work best. At the Hua Hin Hills vineyard, Puff and her team are trialing different varieties that don't mind being in the heat and dark. They've got a couple of rows of practically everything, from cool-climate sauvignon blanc to the famed varietals of Bordeaux – cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot – and even Italy's montepulciano.

This give-it-a-go approach is how Puff ended up thousands of miles from home. At the time she was offered the job in Thailand, she was working as a winemaker in Tuscany. She had been planning to return to New Zealand, where she had worked in Martinborough, but packed her bags and flew to Bangkok instead. “My family and my colleagues in Italy said I was crazy, but I think it's always worth trying something new.”

The Monsoon Valley winery in Hua Hin Hills
© Siam Winery | The Monsoon Valley winery in Hua Hin Hills

So what does Thai wine taste like? Admittedly, it's not going to have the Bordelais quaking in their boots, but there are some surprisingly good wines considering that this is a tropical climate and it is such a young industry: the first-ever Thai wine to be released on the market appeared less than 20 years ago. Even famed wine critic Robert Parker Jr. has sung the praises of Monsoon Valley's Colombard.

Today, Monsoon Valley exports as much as 60 percent of its production. However, Puff concedes that producing wine is not enough to keep a winery turning a profit: "It's not just the wine that helps us stay alive, it's our restaurant and events – it's about the whole package.”

High production costs and relatively low yields mean that Thai wine is never going to be cheap. The price of locally produced wine is forced even higher by the government, which imposes draconian taxes – as much as 200 percent – on domestically produced wines and even more on those which are imported.

“Producing wine in Thailand is a rather expensive hobby," Puff says. "To make it work, you have to be persistent."

Currently there are estimated to be around 740 acres (300ha) of vineyard planted to Vitis vinifera and fewer than nine wineries. 

"The potential of Thai wine is for now limited,” Puff admits, but she warns us not to write it off.

"Why wouldn't anyone take our wine seriously? I think we have a whole movement coming: India, for example, is already a country with an established tropical viticulture."

However, Puff realizes that perceptions are hard to change. "It's difficult for people with long traditions to accept. But people rely too much on tradition and think that what was done 100 years ago must be good," she says.

"The New World is much more open to Thai wine. People from Australia and California are enthusiastic about it, whereas people in Europe think that the only true wine comes from France, Italy or Germany." 

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